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February 14, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The documentary movie Divorce Corp. hasn’t been out long, but family lawyers — i.e. the well-paid employees of Divorce Corp. - are already raising a stink about it.  Here a Minnesota divorce attorney, Gerald Williams, writing on his firm’s blog, takes umbrage at the movie.

His piece is collegial in tone as befits an article meant to be read by others in the Minnesota family law bar. But I have to admit, reading it gave me the strong impression that other family lawyers must think Williams is more than a bit naïve. I know I do. On the other hand, they may see the piece for exactly what it is — a bit of pabulum designed to soothe injured feelings and deflect attention not only from the real points of the movie, but the real dysfunction of family courts and family law as well.

Williams tells us he’s been a divorce lawyer for 20 years. As such, he should know a fair amount about the realities of family court litigation, but you’d never guess it from his piece. His basic point is that, for a lawyer to act in the ways depicted in Divorce Corp. would be to ruin his reputation among other divorce lawyers. Moral rectitude fairly drips from the page.

The fact is — while I know there are threads of greed, destruction and bad faith that exist in any state — in twenty years of family law practice, I have zero first-hand knowledge of a custody evaluator’s recommendation being bought, or a family court judge giving preferential treatment to a crony. On the contrary. Anyone involved in family law who would engage in the spotlighted conduct portrayed in the movie would have a horrendous reputation — in Minnesota at least. More importantly, the conduct that earns a good reputation — that is necessarily the mainstay of real-life family law — has no role in the movie, not even a cameo appearance.

I suppose it’s possible that Williams has practiced divorce law for so long, and become so inured to the behavior of lawyers, custody evaluators, judges and the like, that he fails to see what’s before his eyes. That sort of “defining deviancy down” I’m sure is possible and I’m sure it’s possible to simply get used to it without realizing the fact.

After all, for over two decades now, we’ve heard countless family lawyers complain about the fact that false allegations of abuse are commonplace in family courts. Williams would have us believe that, in 20 years of practice, he’s never seen one. Or maybe they’re so common he no longer grasps the deep moral wrong they represent or their potential for child abuse. Whatever the case, Williams prefers not to mention them.

Anti-father bias? He’s never heard of that either, despite the fact that many studies show judges exhibiting remarkably anti-father/pro-mother bias. Indeed, it’s one of the astonishing points made by Dr. Linda Nielsen that both family lawyers and family judges acknowledge the unfairness of family courts to fathers, but continue to view mothers as the more “natural” parents. That fact alone strongly suggests an ingrained indifference to fathers and their children that a more reflective lawyer would surely find appalling.

But not Williams. He’s too busy congratulating himself and the rest of his pals to notice the deeply destructive nature of what he does every day. Oh, it’s there for all to see in the many, many studies of child custody outcomes and the damage they do to kids, the horror stories told by divorced husbands and their second wives, the shocking suicide rate among divorced fathers, but Williams isn’t concerned about that.

[T]he movie did make me reflect on the real-life work that divorce professionals do in this community. But so do the continuing education courses, family law conferences, and consult group meetings that I attend on a regular basis. Long before the producers embarked on this project, divorce professionals were being taught how to carry out family justice…

To a great extent Minnesota has made great advances to improve family justice in the last ten to fifteen years. These days, most family courts engage in case management focused on resolution outside the courtroom. The processes include an Initial Case Management Conference (conducted by the judge in an informal, non-adversarial setting) and Early Neutral Evaluations (in which child-related or financial issues are not just mediated, but evaluated by neutrals). My day-to-day practice involves more Early Neutral Evaluations than custody evaluations; more mediations than trials; and out-of-court settlements that outnumber divorce decrees issued by the judge by more than 10 to 1.

It’s the same old dodge. How many times have we heard the cry “Family courts aren’t biased; nine out of ten cases settle without a trial!” To me, that claim, particularly when made by an experienced family attorney reflects either an astonishing inability to see the reality of what he does every day or a willingness to mislead his readers.

Mr. Williams, as you surely know, the reason so few cases go to trial is that fathers know very well what will happen. Why, they ask themselves, should I spend huge sums of money on lawyers, custody evaluators, guardians ad litem and the like, just to come out with the same order I can get for a fraction of the cost by making a deal? It’s the way judicial bias in child custody cases works.

Don’t believe me? Ask Dr. Francis Joseph about whose case I’ve written lately. He should have been given primary custody of his daughter because, in violation of Wyoming law, the child’s mother did everything in her power, including some 29 false allegations, to keep him out of her life. Into the bargain she exposed the little girl to a registered sex offender, not once but numerous times. The facts were known and agreed on. Joseph was found by the judge and the guardian ad litem to be a fit and loving father and the mother violated the law and common parenting sense. So who ended up with primary custody? You know who.

Joseph could have gotten that result for one-tenth the money and one-tenth the stress, but naively believed he could get justice in family court. Now he knows.

Williams would like us to believe that nothing like that happens, that child custody cases are all just sweetness and light. No fathers are falsely accused; no children are traumatized by losing their fathers, no one alienates a child, no father is stripped of his assets.

Another thing Williams neglects to mention is the fact that, in his home state of Minnesota, parents have been trying for 14 years to get shared parenting legislation enacted into law. They finally succeeded last year in passing an extremely watered-down version of the bill, only to see it vetoed by the governor who, amazingly enough, claimed it needed more study. Apparently 13 years wasn’t enough.

In each of those 13 years, the chief opponent of fathers having meaningful contact with their children post-divorce was, of course, the Minnesota family law bar. Yes, those same paradigms of virtue hymned by Williams were seen in committee hearing rooms frankly misrepresenting the terms and effects of the bill. They doggedly opposed — and continue to oppose — giving fathers the power to force courts to give them meaningful time with their children, but Williams never mentions that, much less inquires as to why that might be.

The reason is simple; family lawyers thrive on conflict - the more the better. That’s because the more parents disagree, the more motions there are to file, evaluators to hire and depose, etc. No family lawyer ever got rich agreeing on anything.

And maybe Williams is one of those rarest of birds, a family lawyer who really does try to mitigate conflict. If so, good for him. But all the good deeds by him or any other family attorney won’t alter the fact that the main result of child custody cases, across the country and the English-speaking world, is fathers separated from children and children separated from fathers.

Mr. Williams, as long as that is true, there will be a movement against the status quo you’re so content with and in favor of equality in parental rights. And part of that movement will be films like Divorce Corp. You complain that the film doesn’t offer solutions. Well, neither did Dickens or Harriet Beecher Stowe. They, like the makers of Divorce Corp. understood that simply bringing injustice to light is half the battle for a more just, peaceful and egalitarian world. Too bad divorce lawyers oppose that.

Thanks to Yuri for the heads-up.

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